Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Brad Finds A Profound Note On His Doorstep

An anonymous "Fellow Pittsburgher" left this amazing note on our son's
doorstep a number of months ago upon seeing his 

yard sign welcoming immigrant neighbors.
(note transcribed below). 

We have never met.

When my grandparents were teenagers, they traveled, mostly on foot, across Europe. They were "undocumenteds" in every country through which they passed.  They obtained visas to enter Canada, where they met, married and raised a family.

They lived. They were Jews. The remainder of their families did not survive. Canada, the United States and all other countries stopped admitting Jews in the years leading up to the war.

When I drove by your house today and saw your yard sign, I felt some consolation. I felt that your sign honored the family that was lost, because you were telling your community, "Never again."

Kind regards,

A Fellow Pittsburgher

Check this link for more on these yard signs sprouting up everywhere: 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Welcome Signs Multiply On Pittsburgh Yards

photos by Brad Yoder

On an early morning walk today while visiting our son Brad, we saw 16 yard signs expressing welcome for immigrant neighbors. These were all within a five-block residential area bounded by Meade St. and Thomas Boulevard in the North Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh where he lives. 

All but three of these were the ones with the message, "No matter where you're from, we're glad you're are neighbor" that originated in our home town of Harrisonburg. Two others simply said "You Belong," and a third was a "Refugees and Immigrants Welcome Here" sign (on the lower left of the photo montage above).

This area is far from being some Mennonite ghetto. In fact, Brad is the only person in the immediate neighborhood presently attending the city's one Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.

Is this phenomenon a heartening sign or what?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Mennonite Girls From Everywhere Can Cook

Tens of thousands of Mennos cook in these kinds of kitchens.
I am disappointed that your cookbook includes a recipe for tacos. To me, that's not Mennonite food. 
- anonymous comment on Mennonite Girls Can Cook

Herald Press recently published a beautifully illustrated book called Mennonite Girls Can Cook. As a Menno who loves good food it's hard not to like this attractive work by ten very creative members of my faith.

Their use of the label "Mennonite" raises a question, however. Doesn't this just add to a stereotype that Mennonites are fair skinned middle-class North American folks of Swiss, German, Dutch or Russian descent who live north of the Rio Grande?

The fact is that there are now more Anabaptists/Mennonites on the continent of Africa alone (nearly 700,000 according to the latest 2015 stats), than there are in Canada and the United States combined. And their numbers are growing far more rapidly than ours.

As another example of this growing diversity, there are more Mennonites on the subcontinent of India, some 250, 000 in all, than there are members of our entire Mennonite Church USA, now well under 100,000 in number and declining.

To be fair, the numbers of all Anabaptist related groups in North America is over 683,000. But oddly, Mexican and Central American Mennonites are officially counted with their South American counterparts rather than as a part of the actual continent they share with Canada and the US.

This is presumably because their culture, language and ethnicity are seen as being more similar to fellow believers further south, but doesn't this represent a subtle form of bias on the part of those of us of European descent?

I know the good folks who produced this cookbook in no way intended to convey any such bias. And the fact that they are  dedicating all of their royalties to programs to feed hungry children is beyond commendable. I'm simply using this example to highlight an issue I feel deserves attention.

Or am I just being way too picky about such things?

Here's a link to the 40th anniversary edition of another best-selling Mennonite cookbook:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Life As Rehearsal For A Royal Wedding

Rebekah at the well, painting by Nicholas Poussin
At first glance, last Sunday's lectionary readings seemed like a hodgepodge of texts lacking a common theme. But at our house church we reflected on the following: 1) human beings from the beginning are hardwired by their Creator for relationships; 2) while the most primal and most intimate of these is marriage, the Bible has something far greater in mind than just the creation of biological families; and 3) the Biblical drama ends with people of every nation and tribe and language celebrating a royal wedding that knows no end.

Surprisingly for the patriarchal times in which they were written, the second chapter of the Song of Songs, along with Sunday's Psalm 45 "royal wedding" text, portray conjugal unions as celebrations of love that are mutual, joyful and intimate. This makes marriage a wonderful metaphor for the kind of honeymoon-like and deeply satisfying bonds we form in our experiences of worship, as a people who are completely won over as God's beloved and forever Bride.

The Genesis 24 account of Abraham's servant, who is led to just the right young woman as wife for his son Isaac, has its parallel in the story found in the fourth chapter of John's gospel. In that passage Jesus is both the seeking servant and the royal Messiah. At Jacob's well, he wins over a receptive Samaritan crowd brought to him by an unlikely woman from the town who comes there to draw water. At this ordinary time and place we sense a rumor of a God-blessed wedding, one bringing together God and God's people, a united new God-family that will include even unorthodox Samaritans. And just as Rebekah leaves all to cast her lot with Isaac, who loved her deeply from the moment he met her, so Jesus's disciples everywhere are loved into leaving all behind and casting their lot with him.

It's like a wedding. You "leave" one family and you "cleave" in the formation of a new one. And in Sunday's Matthew 11 text, Jesus is making what sounds like this kind of proposal to would-be disciples, "Come to me, all who are weary and weighed down, and I will give you rest," or as Clarence Jordan translates it, "I will give you zest.'' "Take my yoke on you (that is, companion with me) and learn from me, for I am gentle and gracious of heart, and you will find rest in your inner being." In other words, you will find a place of home.

So whether in our human relationships or in the intimacies of the spirit, we find ourselves enthralled, blessed, joined together in relationships that offer deep joy and great purpose. Life becomes a kind of wedding rehearsal, in which the divinely betrothed learn to live lives of integrity, fidelity and deep passion.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Oh Free At Last! Independence Day at BKCC

Allan Spitzer, 68, was
incarcerated 32 years.
Inmates at the Buckingham Correctional Center had a special reason to celebrate the Fourth this year upon receiving news that six of their friends and fellow detainees had been released June 29 by the Virginia Parole Board. More than one of them cried when they received their parole grant letter, many having been denied parole year after year and coming to believe they they were going to die in prison. 

Charles Zellers writes, "There is a God and His holy hands are working to correct the injustice that has been done to parole-eligible inmates throughout the years. Those who were lost were pulled down to their lowest point in life until they were humbled before God and then He showed them mercy and brought them up out of the pits of hell making them victorious. I truly believe that these individuals will now be model citizens in society. God truly is a mighty God."

Henry Tipold, 72,
incarcerated 38 years.
Zellers is suggesting we write letters of thanks to the Governor and to members of the Virginia Parole Board, thanking them for offering these men their hard earned independence and encouraging the Board to continue to give deserving "old-law" men and women (incarcerated before 1995) their second chance at a new life. 

Ever rising costs and overcrowding inside Virginia's jails and prison adds to the urgency of these releases for the men and women sentenced prior to the 1995 so-called Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) Law.

Another reason to release such inmates, he points out, is because many of the older prisons need remodeling. Some do not have air-conditioning and become unbearably hot, well exceeding temperatures in even animal shelters, those generally not to exceed 80 degrees. Inmates are allowed to purchase one eight-inch fan if they can afford the nearly thirty dollar cost.

Also from Zellers, "Hopefully, in the near future, all of DOC''s facilities will provide reentry for the inmates being released so that they will not be sent to other reentry facilities where they could be victimized by VADOC staff and inmates. This is why "old-law" and "new-law" inmates should not be housed together. This practice of VADOC has been going on since the 1995 TIS Law was implemented, and many parole-eligible inmates have lost their parole and good-time release dates because of those new-law inmates. BKCC has an entire 64-man housing unit that could be used as a reentry program to help get parole-eligible inmates out of the VADOC. 

"Each inmate being released from VADOC is mandated to go through a five-month reentry program, even after they have served 20-50 consecutive years inside VADOC. Presently, all of these programs are currently filled which is slowing down the release process. More reentry units are needed or VADOC has to speed-up the reentry programs, or even waive the reentry step if the parolee has a stable home plan and individuals on the outside to help them."

Here are some addresses:

Governor, Terrance R. McAuliffe
Patrick Henry Building
1111 East Broad Street, 3rd Floor

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security
Brian J. Moran
P. O. Box 1475
Richmond, Virginia 23218-1475

Virginia Parole Board
P. O. Box 26963
Richmond, Virginia 23261-6936
Email at

Friday, July 7, 2017

July 22--Help Release Aging People In Prison

This local effort is being spearheaded by a remarkable teenager, Wynona Hogan. All of us aging people should get behind it.

Monthly meetings of the local RAPP chapter will be at the Parish Hall, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 660 S. Main Street, Harrisonburg, VA 22801, at 7 pm on the third Monday of each month.

Here's a link to more posts on this issue:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Memorial Service Meditation: "If Everyone Lived Like Rachel, We Could Change The World"

Yesterday we celebrated the "commencement"
of Rachel Anna Stoltzfus, 91, who graduated
summa cum laude from this life May 13, 2017.
Rachel Stoltzfus and her late husband Robert made a profound impact on the lives of dozens of international students for whom they provided lodging and hospitality over many years.

Yesterday a number of them shared their stories at Rachel's memorial service, one of the most moving experiences I've had in a long time. 

The following is my meditation at that service, held at the former location of the New Covenant Church of which Rachel and Robert were charter members:
Welcome to this special service in memory of a truly unforgettable woman, Rachel Stoltzfus. She is an inspiring example of how great saints can come in small packages, an illustration of how God has chosen the quiet and un-acclaimed people in the world to confound and put to shame the lofty and the mighty. As in the the Magnificat announced by Mary, God scatters the proud and haughty ones, and has exalted the lowly, the meek, those who will indeed inherit the earth.

I feel blessed and honored to have been this woman’s pastor over the past couple of decades, and now to celebrate with you this commencement ceremony in honor of Rachel Anna Stoltzfus, who graduated summa cum laude (with greatest honor) as a part of the God's great class of 2017. Throughout her life she quietly and faithfully served so many people in so many ways and over so many years.

In the “Heroes of Faith” chapter in the Bible (Hebrews 11) we are given examples of numerous ordinary persons who, by faith, accomplished something that put them on God’s honor roll, the lesser known and the well known alike, people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and others. The passage ends with “It would take too long to recount all the stories of faithful ones who trusted God for a better future than they experienced in this life, of whom the world was not worthy", or as another translation has it, "they were too good for this world.”

Today we add our sister Rachel to that growing list in God’s story, people who are to be commended for a faith—not so much a faith based on believing certain things in spite of the evidence, but as Clarence Jordan once put it, a faith that acts in faithful ways in spite of the cost or the consequences.

And Rachel reminds me of the words of another text, the one that encourages us to not be so concerned about an outward beauty associated with lots of jewelry, or fashionable clothes or regularly permed hair, but a beauty that comes from deep inside, the charm of a gentle and quiet spirit. Rachel was beautiful in every way (just look at the photos in your program!) but in terms of an inner beauty, she was truly a knock-out. 

She wasn’t just some nice and submissive and passive person, but impactful in a very special and powerful way. In fact, the more I thought about doing this little meditation, the more it struck  me how much the world would be literally transformed if everyone lived like Rachel.

Think about it.

What if everyone welcomed strangers and foreigners and international students like Rachel and Robert did? What if all of us, like her, wouldn’t care whether our house looked like a page from Better Homes and Gardens? What if we lived as though what really mattered was not how well a home is furnished, but how well our hearts were furnished to be open to simply loving people, no matter where they were from, no matter whether they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist? Or if anyone needed a welcoming meal, or a room to stay in, and if we had one available, they would be warmly loved and well nurtured. That mindset would change the world.

And if we all lived and loved like Rachel, there would be an end to ugly church splits, to hate speech, to harsh words and hurtful gossip, to unspeakably awful wars and violence of all kinds. We would be experiencing the kind of shalom God envisioned when the world was first  created, a world in which nothing is marred and nothing is missing, where God’ will is being done here on earth in and among us, as it is in heaven. It would be a world in which people were prized above possessions, where no one was ever left to starve or be without clothes or shelter, where there was no competition for attention or praise or high honor, but a simple life of devotion to loving God and to loving every neighbor as oneself. 

That’s Rachel. And hers was never a piety for piety’s sake, but a life of prayer and of hymn singing (she loved singing, and knew more hymns by memory than most of us know, period) and of church fellowship that kept her focused, not just on a heaven in the sweet by and by, but on bringing more of God’s heaven-based blessings to bear on earth in the here and now. 

And what if we all were as careful in the stewardship of the earth as Rachel, on her little demonstration plot around her house just a stone’s throw from here? What if we, like her, took time to grow more things to harvest and preserve and share with others, and to till and enrich the soil and whatever it produced, carefully caring for fruit trees and berry bushes and grape vines as she did? And what if we were to reuse, recycle, reclaim, make do in such a way that we, like her, would leave an almost invisible carbon or any other footprint? Surely if everyone were the kind of earth steward Rachel was, the planet would be spared the threat of global warming, the air would be pure, the water clean, the oceans teeming with life. She left the world, and the earth, a better place than she found it.

To some, she might have seemed thrifty to a fault, so careful was she not to waste even the tiniest bit of table scrap that could be composted or that could be food for some bird or animal or human being. But as focused as she was on being thrifty and sparing in her spending, this wasn’t at all about hoarding up more treasure here on earth for herself, but about being able to be truly generous with what she had. As an example, sometimes when she did have some things that needed to be taken to the landfill, she would accept my offer to add it to whatever I was taking to dispose of. But it was always hard to do anything like that for her that she didn’t want to compensate me for it, to help pay for my gas or for my time. Thrifty but generous. 

Sometimes it’s easy to think pessimistically about the world’s future. And if its survival depended on the policies of generals and politicians and prime ministers and presidents, that future would be dark indeed. But God continues to entrust the earth’s future to ordinary people like you and me, like Rachel and Robert, like the everyday saints who faithfully and quietly keep on doing what’s right, who consistently do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with their God and share generously with others, just like Rachel. 

It's good that the future of the world isn’t just left to the world’s scientists and PhD’s and its preachers and its prophets, but on those everyday people whose wisdom runs deep and who in a stubborn and quiet way become a preserving salt, a persistent light, a transforming leaven that outlasts and outshines every other force in the world. 

So as we say our farewells to Rachel, let’s make sure her wisdom, her ways, God’s ways, Jesus's ways, live on in us, wisdom being a way of loving and living that we can look back on, as we are doing with Rachel’s life today, and celebrate as genuinely enduring and satisfying. 

From the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible:

Listen as Wisdom calls out!
she cries aloud,
Listen to me! ...Choose my instruction rather than silver,
    my knowledge rather than pure gold.
For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies.
    Nothing you desire can compare with it.
...Listen to my instruction and be wise.
...For whoever finds me finds life
    and receives favor from the Lord.

And from the New Testament: 

The wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

Thanks be to God, and to Rachel for that demonstration of wisdom that results in a radically transformed life, and one that could literally change the world.

According to Jesus, life's "Final Exam" is like a kind of multiple choice test, as in “I was hungry and you… a) fed me, b) ignored me or c) outsourced the task of feeding the hungr to the Salvation Army.” 

In Rachel’s case, the answer was clearly “a”. Check.

The same with the following items in the "exam":

I was thirsty and you… gave me water. Check.
I was a stranger and you… invited me into your home. Check.
I was cold and without shelter and you… clothed and housed me. Check.
I was sick and in prison, and you…visited me. Check.

To those the King will say, "You've passed the finals." "Come you blessed of my Father, into the  new heaven and the new earth prepared for you from the creation of the world.” Along with people everywhere who have first experienced God's mercy and grace, then spend the rest of their lives as channels of it.

So it is with joy that we commit our sister Rachel into God's everlasting care and to her eternal reward. And in is in light of Rachel's motto of “only one life, it will soon be past, and only what’s done for Christ (and to the least of these) will last,” that we close with these words, 

“So then, dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
The family buried the urn with Rachel's remains next to her husband's at the Weavers church cemetery after the noon reception. There we affirmed Psalm 23 and received the following Irish blessing:

May the blessing of light be with you--
light outside and light within.
May the sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart
‘til it glows like a great peat fire,
So that the stranger may come and warm himself by it,
and also a friend.
May a blessed light shine out of the two eyes of you
like a candle set in two windows of a house,
bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.
May the blessing of rain--the sweet soft rain--
fall upon your spirit and wash it fair and clean.
May it leave many a shining pool where the blue of heaven shines, and sometimes a star.
May the blessing of earth--the good, rich earth--be with you.
May you ever have a kindly greeting for those you pass 
as you go along its roads.
May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.
May the earth rest easy over you when at the last you lie under it.
May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

from An Irish Blessing, a Photographic Interpretation, by Cyil A. and Renee Travis Reilly

Monday, July 3, 2017

Raising A Million: The Unamazing Miracle Of "The Sharing Of The 5000"

Were Virginia Mennonites to experience a revival of generosity this year for the desperate needs of millions of war and famine refugees, how much revenue might our September 29-30 Virginia Relief Sale generate for Mennonite Central Committee?

Last year's total was over $360,000, the second highest amount ever. This year's Sale is adding a cash contribution option as a way of greatly increasing that number.

The 2017 SOS ("Sharing Our Surplus") initiative aims at enlisting extra support through generous check, credit card and other gifts, a plan especially designed for folks not inclined to participate in the annual auction.

In a recent optimistic moment I suggested that a wealthy community like ours should be able to easily raise a million dollars annually through this kind of event. Of course that idea has been dismissed as preposterous, and even I realize that kind of miracle is less than likely.

But let's do some math, based on a modest "$100 plus $100 x 5000 Plan", as follows:

Let's assume that of the estimated 10,000 attendees at the Sale, 5000 earn some kind of regular income ranging from $20,000 to $200,000 a year. Without limiting any of their other charitable giving, let's assume it were possible for each of these persons to set aside a minimum average of at least $200 annually (or 1% or more of their income, whichever is greater) to contribute at the relief sale, as follows: 1) $100 average for food, auction and other purchases, and 2) another $100 average as their tax deductible gift for refugee relief.

Those with more means and greater motivation, of course, would need to spend more than $100 in food and auction purchases and/or give more than $100 as an outright gift in order to compensate for those who give or spend lesser amounts in response to this kind of need.

But that's all it would take to raise a cool million for MCC.

But is this kind of $200 (average) annual giving splurge at all reasonable or possible?

Think about it. $200 is significantly less than many of us might spend on any one of the following in a year's time:

Pet food
Starbucks coffee
Lawn care
A weekend vacation
Air conditioning
Soft drinks
Snack foods
Eating out
A car payment
Bottled water
Magazine subscriptions
Hair care
Ice cream

The total of all of our expenditures on such items alone (all completely out of reach for families living in a refugee camp) would likely be staggering. So if we fail to reach anywhere near a million dollar goal, it won't be because it would require some kind of miracle to accomplish.

A more likely explanation might be that like Dr. Seuss's Grinch, our middle class American hearts have become several sizes too small.

This truly represents an unprecedented crisis.
Note: While the SOS initiative is an effort officially endorsed by the Virginia Relief Sale Board, the views expressed in support of it in this or any of my blog posts are purely my own.